FABRIC FANATIC?Anna Wright with some of the children who attend her sewing classes at the StitchClub on Westport’s North Mall, where she also runs classes for adults.?Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Through the eye of a needle
Westport’s tree-lined Mall River lazily slips by an old, open-stone building with a big archway. Hanging across the inside of one of its red-framed windows is a large string of cheery letters. Your passerby-eye is drawn. You realise the letters proudly announce a hive of industry contained within: StitchClub.
StitchClub? You take a step closer and peer through the window. A cosy, whimsical, colourful world of design and creativity is revealed. A row of sewing machines and painted chairs, ready and waiting; a central table strewn with pins, scissors and fabric of every colour and pattern imaginable; bright yellow shelves loaded with big bolts of even more fabric, as well as cushions and bags of different sizes and shapes.
The walls and windowsills are festooned with the achievements of club members big and small – and what achievements! Pyjamas, dresses, skirts, jackets, children’s outfits, bunting, dressing gowns, cushion covers, bath bags, beach bags, tote bags… Many of them would not look out of place in shops like Avoca or Foxford Woollen Mills, yet all have sprung from the eager, industrious hands of those who frequent this welcoming room, filling its warm walls with ideas, plans, questions, answers, laughter, chatter and pride.
And what’s even more amazing is many of the club members describe themselves as beginners. Beginners!
The StitchClub is the brainchild of Anna Wright, a lively Liverpudlian with boundless enthusiasm and an easy laugh. One Thursday afternoon, she lets the The Mayo News take a peek inside. The door swings open onto a group of women winding down after a morning’s sewing session. Stepping in, you’re greeted with smiles, banter, the smell of coffee, a big plate of biscuits, the contented hum of sewing machines and the impressive sight of design projects at various stages of completion.
What draws these women here? It’s the opportunity to learn new skills, of course, but it’s also something of a social sanctuary. Fidelma Lyons-Hague from Murrisk confides with a smile, “It’s time out.” Linda McCormack from Westport and Alex Lloyd from Ballycroy nod along in agreement. “It’s just lovely,” chimes in Alex. “It’s heaven,” says Linda.
The StitchClub first opened just over a year ago, and since then it has run a whole range of courses for adults and children. The adults’ classes have included ‘Sew Intro’ and ‘Dressmaking: The Basics’. The children’s classes currently take place on Saturdays and Sundays, with eight children in each session. There are lots of week-long Easter and summer camps planned for later in the year too.
Fidelma says her daughter, Lucy, attends the Sunday morning classes, and she’s seen the children at work firsthand. “The energy in the room when you come in is hilarious. They get so excited,” she says. “They just love it.”
Anna says that because the lessons are quite sociable, she’s noticed the quieter children come out of their shells and gain confidence as the classes progress. “Some are quiet or shy at the start, but soon they’re all so comfortable with each other. It’s like a safe space, you know? Where they can just be themselves.”
And the fruits of that nurturing atmosphere are plain to see, especially in the Star of the Month corner, where the creations of different children are displayed on rotation. This month, there’s a beautiful pair of pyjamas, a sun dress and a beach bag on show. “That’s Eleanor O’Toole,” Anna grins. “She’s seven. She’s been with me since the beginning. Isn’t her stuff lovely?” Lovely? It’s amazing.
I’m also shown some truly impressive examples of the women’s work. Among them is Fidelma’s beautiful ‘Chanel inspired’ box jacket with velvet-piping trim and silk lining. Mind boggling, considering she took her first sewing lesson with Anna less than a year ago.
“Each of these ladies started off doing the six-week ‘Dressmaking: The Basics’ course with me here at the StitchClub,” Anna explains. “They followed up with an intermediate course in which they made a tailored jacket. Then I thought I’d take a break from the adult classes for a while – but they wouldn’t let me!” Cue peels of laughter from the women, and a frank admission: “We’re addicted!”
Mum’s the word
Anna, a mother of two, has a degree in Fashion Design, but she says she learned everything from her mum, Anne. It seems Anna might owe her mum more than her design flair, however. Anne’s own mother’s family, the Carrolls, are from Aughagower, just outside Westport, and so for many years, the Wright family visited Westport ‘over and back, over and back’ each summer – and it was thanks to those visits that Anna eventually met the man she would marry, Paddy Ryder from Westport.
Anna settled down in Westport 16 years ago, and later, soon after her first child was born, her parents, Ann and Steve (who will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary at the end of this month), left Liverpool behind forever and moved to Mayo too.
The decision to study design, to work in fashion, was an easy one for Anna. “It was a dream, a dream I’d had since I was a little girl. I was always doodling. I loved Vivienne Westwood. I was just in awe of her. I remember when I was about 12, I won a Vivienne Westwood T-shirt in a competition! Design was just something that was always in me.
“Unfortunately, my career guidance counsellor at school put me off, telling me you had to be the the best of the best to make it in fashion and not to bother. That was the advice I got! But then years later, after I’d started a family, I realised it was still in my system. It was just something I had to do – and I did it! And I’m so proud of it.”
While in college, Anna realised that her love of fashion and design is very closely bound up with values – especially sustainability and ethical buying. “Sustainability is really important to me. I love to get people to think about where they buy their clothes and things, where those things were made … to ask themselves, were they made by kids? Were they made ethically? Will they last?
“Everything in this room that you see – the shelves, the drawers, everything – is upcycled. Everything is salvaged from charity shops or wherever. And that’s part of the ethos. I really strongly recommend to the club’s adults that they go to the charity shops to source fabrics, or use old duvet covers or whatever.
“People should think about their choices. There’s a feel-good factor in going into a charity shop and reusing something, or in turning something old into something different, rather than being part of a throw-away culture. Fast fashion can’t go on for ever. We need to stop and reevaluate.”
There’s been a huge resurgence of interest in craft making, especially in dressmaking and sewing. The popularity of programmes like the Great British Sewing Bee or Kirsty’s Handmade Britain stand as testament to it.
“People used to think it wasn’t fashionable or cool to sew, but that’s changing,” says Anna. “Sewing cafés are popping up all over England and elsewhere. It’s becoming really, really trendy again. Sewing’s becoming a creative function for people who don’t like others to dictate what they should wear. It’s for people who love individuality – who like not looking like everyone else.
“Fit is also a big problem. Not everyone conforms to the standard sizes that are out there in the shops. Most people don’t in fact. So, by learning to sew and make clothes, they can get garments that really fit their bodies … They can get clothes that make them feel good.
“Sewing also teaches you patience. You make mistakes – you have to. It’s like life, it’s the rule: Make mistakes and learn from them. It teaches you that it’s okay to make mistakes, that it’s actually important to make them, because how else will you know not to do it again? It teaches you to let go. And the great thing with the classes is that there’s always someone to help you if you do screw up!
“I love to see the satisfaction on people’s faces when they make something that looks good and that they love. It’s just pride, pure pride.”
What’s coming up?
Anna will soon be running a Beginners’ Bootcamp for adults: a one-day workshop for complete beginners who want to get familiar with the sewing machine. Participants will make a lined tote bag designed to reinforce the skills learned on the day. The cost, €80, includes the use of the all machinery and equipment, the fabrics and refreshments as well as take-home patterns.
These one-day Beginners’ Bootcamp workshops will run twice over Easter, on Saturday, April 12 and on Saturday, April 26, as well as on the last Saturday of every month after that – May 31, June 28, July 26 and August 29.
For kids, Anna will run two camps at Easter time. The first, for children aged six to ten, will take place from Monday, April 14, to Thursday, April 17. The second, for children aged ten to 14, will run from Tuesday, April 22, to Friday, April 25.
During the summer, Anna will be running a series of five-day StitchClub kids’ camps, the first starting on Monday, June 30.
If she’s still standing, Anna hopes to run a series of lengthier, more detailed adults’ courses in the autumn.
For more information on upcoming StitchClub courses for adults and children, contact Anna Wright on 087 0674923 or email her at email@example.com.